US public gets glimpse at Guantanamo detainee review panel for first time
On Tuesday morning, the US public was allowed to catch a glimpse of a new review process for Guantanamo detainees in a 19-minute video feed. The review process is highlighted as a key step toward closing the notorious detention facility.
A handful of journalists and representatives of human rights groups who watched the session in Virginia, over 1,000 miles away, never heard from Abdel Malik al-Rahabi from Yemen who has been held in Guantanamo Bay for 12 years without charge.
The Defense Department believes that al-Rahabi was "almost certainly" a member of al-Qaeda.
Tuesday’s session shown on TV in a Defense Department’s office building outside Washington was the first case of the public allowed to see the process that Obama’s Administration began in 2011 so as to clear out the remaining population in the detention centre.
But all matters related to Guantanamo unfold at a grinding pace. Only one other so-called Periodic Review Board has taken place over three years and the public did not have access to it.
The Board consists of members from the Departments of State, Defense, Justice and Homeland Security, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the military’s joint staff. These representatives of the six agencies are expected to decide if al-Rahabi is a threat to the US. They are not all lawyers and they conduct a factual review taking into account everything from diplomatic considerations to his behavior under detention.
Al-Rahabi has never been charged with any crime or convicted. During hunger strikes in which some of the detainees engaged he acted as a go-between for camp authorities and those on hunger strike. For this reason his representatives believe that his detention should be ended.
The task force convened by Obama early in his administration ruled that al-Rahabi was one of 48 detainees who posed a security risk to the US but the government lacked evidence to bring him to trial.
To make matters even more complicated, al-Rahabi is a Yemeni and so subject to a ban on transferring detainees from Guantanamo to Yemen that Obama imposed in 2010, claiming deteriorating security in that country, and only lifted in May last year.
According to a 2008 Guantanamo document published by WikiLeaks, al-Rahabi was considered to be a former bodyguard for Osama bin Laden and a trainee of a commando camp maintained by the Pakistani army, who was allegedly trained for a cancelled plane hijacking mission in South-East Asia to complement the 9/11 plot. Al-Rahabi has been at Guantanamo since 2002, shortly after he was detained attempting to cross into Pakistan from Afghanistan.
Al-Rahabi’s representatives claim that he plans to seek peaceful employment, either with his tailor father or as part of an agricultural enterprise known as Yemeni Milk and Honey, whose business prospectus he read while kept at Guantanamo. The lawyers also alluded to the love of watercolours al-Rahabi developed at the detention centre and the desire he has to reunite with his 13-year-old daughter whom he has not seen since her infancy.
The Periodic Review board is expected to come to a decision within 30 days whether al-Rahabi should be transferred from Guantanamo. Its criteria for making that decision is not clear.
Observers at al-Rahabi’s review also said that the process and the limited visibility into it were disappointments. Andrea Prasow from the Human Rights Watch said that every time the Administration has an opportunity to provide greater transparency they choose not to. Refusing to allow us to hear the detainee, she went on to say, feeds into the idea that they’re so dangerous … while at the same time we’re supposed to be confident in a decision to release him.